Be afraid. . . Be very afraid. . .

A little over a week ago, M. John Harrison posted his thoughts pertaining to worldbuilding on his blog. Here is what he had to say:

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unneccessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically neccessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid.

This insightful nugget of elitism was brought to our attention by Larry (Dylanfanatic). By posting this I'm in no way taking a jab at Larry. I have a lot of respect for Larry, but we just happen to disagree on this issue. And judging from the responses his post generated on both wotmania.com and westeros, it seems that I'm not the only one. I just wanted to bring this to the attention of a broader audience and see what everyone thought about this.

Let me begin by stating that I'm not one of those fans who sees Harrison's novels as a "crock of shit," as they put it. I respect the author and his work, but you'll never see me running to the bookstore when he releases a new book. Moreover, I do feel the man is a bit overrated. But that's just my opinion, and it's worth is relative.

My first beef with M. John Harrison stemmed from this quote: I think it's undignified to read for the purposes of escape. After you grow up, you should start reading for other purposes.

So it's escapism for some, myself included. I don't know if Mr. Harrison realizes that a vast majority of speculative fiction's readership is drawn to the genre for escapism. Food for thought. . . To members of the literati and to those who like to hear themselves talk, this sort of quote might bring out a condescending chuckle or two. And yet, by making such a claim you will also alienate a good chunk of potential readers, as they will, understandably, reject his way of thinking.

And now Mr. Harrison returns with this bit about worlbuilding and how afraid we should be of this aspect.

As I mentioned on wotmania.com, he sounds like a midlist author extremely jealous of the popularity and sales of the epic fantasy novelists. Epic fantasy is what's "in" at the moment, and worldbuilding plays a major role in this sub-genre. If he can't compete with Jordan, Martin, Erikson, Bakker and company in that regard, he shouldn't try to validate his stance by belittling the worldbuilding aspect of novels. This elitist postulation will get him nowhere, and I feel it's a bit unbecoming of an author of his caliber to come out and make such a claim. If I may be so bold, he sounds like a cry-baby. . .

I disagree with Harrison's post, and I don't understand why worldbuilding and good writing are viewed as being mutually exclusive. To me, prose, like worldbuilding and characterization, is just one element that comprise a good novel. Furthermore, prose is by no means the most important aspect of what constitutes a great novel, just one piece of the puzzle. No SFF work can stand on the sole strength of worldbuilding. Harrison's post is preposterous in that sense. And prose, no matter how impeccable and fantastic, cannot carry a story.

For in the end, it's all about the stories. I see authors/novelists more as storytellers, for that's the legacy they leave behind when a book/series is published. No one really remembers Tolkien's prose. Of course not, unless you're an English teacher or a literature grad student. What most of us remember is Frodo's quest. Prose didn't make The Lord of the Rings sell more copies than The Bible. The story of Bilbo, Frodo, Gandalf, and company did.

Similarly, during the 80s authors such as Stephen R. Donaldson, David Eddings, Raymond E. Feist, Terry Brooks, and Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman left indelible marks on the fantasy genre. With the exception of Donaldson, no one in that group has ever been commended for their prose. Be that as it may, their tales captured the heart and imagination of millions of fans around the world. Eddings once said in an interview that he was in no danger of ever winning a Nobel Prize for literature. At last count, the man had sold over 18 million copies worldwide, so I figure he got over it. What about the undisputed master, Frank Herbert? Does Dune suck because it is a feat of worldbuilding, characterization, prose and a panoply of mind-blowing storylines?

Since the mid-90s writers such as Robert Jordan, Neil Gaiman, George R. R. Martin and even Terry Goodkind (yes, it's undeniable!) have made the fantasy genre more popular than it has ever been. Not to mention J. K. Rowling, the most popular author on the planet. Their series will continue to sell long after they're dead and gone. It's no secret that worldbuilding has become more important in the last few years, and series such as The Wheel of Time, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, The Book of All Hours, A Song of Ice and Fire, and many others continue to raise the bar even higher. As a fan of the genre, I say, "Bring it on!" There has never been that many gifted SFF authors all writing at the peak of their careers at the same time, and fans should rejoice -- not be afraid. That readers are torn by the decision to save and spend their hard-earned money on the next Bakker, Hobb, Erikson, Lynch, Duncan, Kay, Hamilton, or a multitude of other talented writers out there, this can be nothing but a good thing.

If Harrison can only fall back on his prose to compete against writers who can create deep and believable characters, a vivid setting and a gripping and multilayered plot, doing it all with nice prose to boot, then he can never hope to produce works that will surpass those of his peers. Which, sadly, appears to be the case here. Hence Mr. Harrison's post.

Speculative fiction as a genre is in constant evolution, whether one likes it or not. And one cannot stop evolution. You can write for the literati and the purists, and your sales will accordingly be tepid. Be afraid of worldbuilding, you say? I say be afraid of falling into obscurity if you fail to realize what fans want. There is nothing wrong with going against the grain and doing what strikes your fancy. As an author, one must do what's in his or her heart. That's artistic integrity. But if you refuse to be mainstream, don't bitch and moan because other, more successful authors outsell you by a margin of a thousand to one or more. . .

Adam (Werthead) nailed it right on the head when he said, But I find an author who hurls around these generalisations without actually being any better himself to be verging on the hypocritical.

I invite M. John Harrison to put his money where is mouth is. If he can write a novel with no worldbuilding whatsoever, in which the prose is such that it will stir my soul, make me wet my pants and bring tears to my eyes, he'll prove me wrong. If he ever succeeds in that endeavor, I'll gladly give his book a perfect 10 and spread the word far and wide about how incredible he is.

Until then (and I'm not holding my breath), I will continue to enjoy the works of those pitiful wretches whose novels use worldbuilding to such an insulting degree. What can I say? My fellow dumbasses and I like writers such as Tad Williams, Scott Lynch, Robin Hobb, Robert Jordan, Hal Duncan, yada yada yada.

My post is a bit harsh, I know. Those who sometimes think I'm too nice should be pleased -- by the way, you guys should talk to the people in my entourage!;-) I'm not certain this was his intention, but M. John Harrison's assertion comes out as a slight to both readers and authors who particularly like the worldbuilding aspect of a book. As Ken (Kcf) mentioned, it comes across as an underhanded insult and I find that off-putting to say the least.

Still, that's just me. Do peruse both message boards to see what sort of replies Larry's post generated, and feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment section.

23 commentaires:

Neth said...

Pat, I'm essentially in agreement with everything you say here. The biggest problems with Harrison's post, and to a lesser extent, some of Larry's arguments is the inherent arrogance and elitism. Am I somehow less intelligent because I enjoy good worldbuilding, or because escapism is one of my biggest reasons for reading? (maybe it makes me more intelligent ;)

Also, the position it too absolute in nature. No, worldbuilding can't succeed in a vacuum. And neither can prose alone (isn't that poetry?). Good writing uses all the various tools available to create balance.

Konrad said...

I was recently in a discussion of "Pure World-Building" books, which was a spinoff of the "Gaming Books that Also Make Good Reading" discussion.

Ben said...

Pat - is it a valid assumption to assume that by "writing" he's referring to prose?

Alan said...

You seem to be reading a lot into Harrison's post that isn't there.
How much of his work have you read, by the way?

Anonymous said...

"I invite M. John Harrison to put his money where is mouth is. If he can write a novel with no worldbuilding whatsoever, in which the prose is such that it will stir my soul, make me wet my pants and bring tears to my eyes, he'll prove me wrong."

Um, have you read the Viriconium books?

Adam Whitehead said...

Harrison's argument basically seems to be that he likes writing and reading magical realism-style fiction, in particular the dream-based stories that do not need maps, internal consistency or any kind of logic. Good for him. Far more people enjoy a story where they know what the hell is going on and where there are rules that need to be followed, as in life. Of course 'pure worldbuilding for its own sake' is a bad idea, and those authors who indulge in it to the exclusion of all else (the terrible Ed Greenwood, for example) are indeed rightly condemned. However, writers who have a great story and solid characters who also want a consistent and deep background aren't doing anything wrong at all. Look at three of our best modern fantasists, George RR Martin, Scott Bakker and China Mieville (who worships the ground Harrison walks on), who indulge in what Tolkien called 'subcreation' for the sake of it. I've seen worldbuilding called characterisation of the setting, so that in Mieville's work, for example, the city of New Crobuzon is as much a character in the book as anyone else, and the 'worldbuilding' (a good 80% of which has no bearing on the plot) tells us about this character in detail. It adds to the flavour of the story and makes it richer.

In summary, I find Harrison's argument without merit beyond the somewhat pithy, "worldbuilding with no characters or plot = bad" angle. What a revelatory statement! The key irony here is that Harrison's Viriconium stories are exactly this: lots of pretty words about a pretty city with no remotely engaging characters or discernably structured plot.

Anonymous said...

I've been a lurker on this blog and a number of SFF websites for quite some time. I never felt the urge to post until now.

I'm 56 years old and I've been readind scifi and fantasy books for more than 40 years. I'd like to think I know what I'm talking about. I've been following Harrison's entire career, and the man has never been and never will be a driving force in both genres. A talented author, yes, but not one who left his mark the way others have, as Pat put it.

I have admit I'm very surprised (not to say shocked) to see that Pat's post has created such a stir. I've just read Chouinard's bit, and sorry but he sounds like one of my grandchidren throwing a tantrum...

The reason why I decided to post a comment is this: During the Holidays, Pat posted his year-end awards, a post in which he utterly ridiculed Terry Goodkind. It was done humorously, of course, but the intent was there nonetheless. Now, far be it from me to put words in Pat's mouth, but I'm sure he'd agree with me on this. Interestingly enough, no one but that Mystar fellow and a few others were irked by that post.

Yesterday Pat simply stated his opinion, namely that he didn't agree with M. John Harrison on worldbuilding and the importance which should be attributed to that facet of a book. I've read his post again this morning, and nothing contained therein can be construed as an attack against Harrison. They disagree, is all.

And yet, Chouinard and his ilk are screaming blasphemy. Funny how no one raised their voices when Goodkind was thoroughly ridiculed last month. But if one so much as disagrees with an "old school" literati-type author who's decades past his prime, then people are quick to cry "foul."

Well, if this is not a double standard, I don't know what is... A guy states an opinion that goes against what Harrison believes and he's an insecure jerk?

For the record, I've read most of Mr. Harrison's novels, Viriconium books included. Interesting, yes, but nothing to shout about.

Like most, I enjoy good worldbuilding and I believe it's an essential part, especially these days, of good SFF works. So excuse me if I side with Pat on this one.

As to those who seem to think that Pat and others read too much in what Harrison has said, I have to say that his post came across as extremely pompous and arrogant.

My two cents. Sorry for the rant!

Peter

P. S. Pat, keep up the good work! One of these days I'll win one of those contests!

Anonymous said...

"Harrison's Viriconium stories are exactly this: lots of pretty words about a pretty city with no remotely engaging characters or discernably structured plot."

What absolute rot.

Whether or not the characters engage you (or, it should also be reparsed, you engage with the characters) is a personal affair, but you'd have to try quite hard to not locate plot in most of the Viriconium stories.

-SCG

Adam Whitehead said...

No, I said there wasn't a very-well structured plot. What plot that exists is a very stop-start affair which comes to a screeching halt whenever it threatens to build any kind of momentum, usually so Harrison can show us what an incredible wordsmith he is. The problem is that true genius authors like Wolfe, Vance and Peake can do both simultaneously, and Harrison fails in comparison. As I mentioned I am basing my critique of Harrison solely on Viriconium. Maybe Light or The Centauri Device are different, better books and one day I may give them a try. But I'll want to catch up with the Wolfe and Vance I haven't read long before I reach the stage of chasing up Harrison. All of that said, the dwarf-in-power-armour was pretty entertaining in the first Viriconium story, mainly because he seemed to have wandered in from a totally different book.

Anonymous said...

This discussion is somewhat absurd. In the first place, the first sentence of MJH's post explicitly states he's talking about science fiction, which renders "Jordan, Martin, Erikson, Bakker and company" somewhat moot. But second, there is a basic misunderstanding here between "setting" and "worldbuilding." These are spur-of-the-moment definitions but I'll offer them up anyway: setting is the depiction of place and time to a degree necessary to convey a particular story; worldbuilding is the inclusion of extra detail about a setting, either as something desirable in itself or as an attempt to make the setting more plausibly "real."

Consider the example of Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn, a classic and much-beloved book which features a richly described setting but makes no effort at worldbuilding: there are no map or calendar; relatively few place names; a lack of detail on religion, government, history, etc.; and deliberate anachronisms like the modern cultural references made by the butterfly. So there's one example of a book that meets your challenge; I picked it because it was well-known, but there are plenty others as well.

MattD

Patrick said...

Well, I never thought that my post would attract such attention. Just came back from the Bar so I haven't had time to peruse all the crap being thrown around.

I will probably respond later tonight...

Just got this email from L. E. Modesitt, jr. Here is what he had to say on the matter:

«Since I don't have a Google blog address, here's my comment on the Harrison quote:

I've always been skeptical of people -- or writers -- who expound "either/or" absolutes, particularly when talking about writing. Kipling was far closer to the truth in his words about the many ways to write tribal lays, and what he said applies to science fiction. Bad world building is indeed terrible and boring, but world building can also be good as well as entertaining, and if done well can add much to the story. What Harrison seems to be admitting is that he either can't do it well or doesn't want to put in the effort.»

Patrick said...

Hmmm, where to begin...

I've said it before and I'll probably say it again, but I'm always shocked to realize how many people in the publishing industry read my blog entries. Coming back home this evening, I had a number of emails from people who wish to remain anonymous, and "off the record" their thoughts all echoed Modesitt's. It sure looks like Harrison's post is not finding many supporters among his peers.

My two cents pertaining to M. John Harrison's post were not supposed to create such a stir. Heck, as ridiculous as this sounds, I just might equal the number of hits I got the first day I posted that George R. R. Martin's interview last spring! Yes, it's that crazy!

Add to that the 62 emails I received on the subject between last night and this evening. I honestly don't know that to make of all this. And the funny thing is that 99% of people seem to back me up.

Yes, I saw that Gabe Chouinard attacked me this morning. And if you're expecting me to reply in kind, then you might as well stop reading. It would be counter-productive for me to do so, in any case.

I've always enjoyed Gabe's blog. And to be frank, a part of me is kind of flattered to have been the source of one of his notorious rants! Having said that, I was a bit surprised by the animosity with which he ripped into me. Yet Gabe is a passionate fellow, so there is that. Calling my post "complete idiocy," I have no problem with. After all, I've been called much worst in my days. Special thanks to Stego for saying that I'm one of the genuinely nicest people in the field. Since not so long ago my co-workers referred to me as the Prince of Darkness, that brought a smirk to my lips!

Having just read it again, I must reiterate that my post is clear. I found Harrison's postulation to be arrogant and elitist, and I stick with it. Moreover, most people who have read his post appear to feel the same way. So I don't feel that I have anything to add in that regard.

I said that it was my opinion and its worth is relative. Yes, Gabe, unlike you I don't pretend to be the Voice of Reason and the Soul of Wisdom. I spoke my piece and people make of it what they will. I don't have the pretention to be so full of it as to be so damn smart that I must educate the dumb populace with all the insightful things I have to say. So no, I'm not falling back on relativism. I have an opinion, and I trust people to make their own judgement on any issue I bring to their attention. But that's just me.

As for my asking the author "to put his money where his mouth is," I don't consider that the Viriconium books are a triumph of writing over worldbuilding. If anyone makes that claim, then I beg to differ. They're not bad, mind you, but those novels are nothing to write home about. But again, this is simply my opinion. And while it doesn't have more value than Gabe's or anyone else who feels like him, it sure as hell doesn't have less merit. To each his own, after all.

Now, to return to Gabe's first post on this topic, other than ripping my post and I to shreds, he makes no claim that validates Harrison's stance. He attacks me and dismisses my opinion, but fails to offer anything to support Harrison's postulation.

Gabe then wrote another entry later today in which he tries to explain what Harrison's post means. For the record, I do agree with most of what he says in that entry. I still don't know how he could perceive my post as a cheap attack against the author. What I've basically been saying is that good worldbuilding is an essential fact of any good SFF novel, just as important as good characterization, good storylines and good prose. A novel cannot stand on worldbuilding alone, unless it's an RPG sourcebook.

M. John Harrison is an author who has been around for decades. He knows how to write and get his meaning across to readers. As such, I don't see any ambiguity in his post. When you say that worldbuilding is dumb, it's quite clear what you're trying to convey. So why must someone like Gabe Chouinard be in charge of the "damage control." Again, I agree with almost everything he says in that post, yet I fail to see why he's the one clarifying Harrison's already abundantly evident position. If Harrison has anything to add, he's a big boy and he'll do it on his own blog.

This post I wrote was not a "fly by night" thing. I waited for more than a week following Harrison's posting his thoughts on worldbuilding on his blog. When Larry brought it to our attention, like most I was insulted. When I saw that basically everyone felt the same way, I decided to post my thoughts on the subject, wondering if a broader audience would generate some sort of discussion.

As I said, it's obvious that Harrison's claim found little supporters. That doesn't make me right, however. We all have to agree to disagree. I feel that Gabe and some people who subsequently posted comments on his site are standing up in Harrison's defense, as if to question the man is a slight in and of itself. I mean, I love Steven Erikson and R. Scott Bakker, and yet I don't feel the need to talk shit to anyone who starts a thread saying they suck. Why should they take it in such a personal fashion?

Okay, the hockey game is about to start and I feel that this is more or less pointless. I didn't care much for Harrison's post, Gabe didn't care much for mine, and some agree with him while others are siding with me.

Case closed!

Anonymous said...

Pat!

Come on, man! I was hoping that you guys would settle this mano a mano!!!

This guy lashed out at you, so you should do the same, bro!

Love the blog, by the way!

Mike

Neth said...

Yeah Pat - I'm still in agreement here. For whatever reason, Gabe and other seem to be defending Harrison - as if he couldn't defend himself. It seems to me that such a proclaimed and skilled wordsmith is perfectly capable of communicating exactly what he intends to without the need for a translator to help the rest of us figure things out.

It's the absolute postion and arrogant attitude that has people upset. I haven't seen anybody jumping up to say that good worldbuilding is more important that good writing. The two are not seperable - worldbuilding is one element of writing in SFF and cannot function in a vacuum. After all the defending of Harrison's words is gotten past, everyone on all sides just seems to saying that it's good writing that triumphs over the individual parts that make it up.

Patrick said...

Just realized that I forgot to reply to those who posted comments...

Neth and Adam: Nothing has changed, we all agree.

Ben: Yes, Harrison refers to the prose. At least that's what I infer from all this.

Alan: I've read a few books by Harrison, a few Viriconium novels in that lot. As I mentioned before, I never implied that he's a bad author. But you'll never hear me say that he's one of the greats.

Peter: Welcome to the blog! I have no idea how Goodkind and Mystar insinuated themselves into this discussion!;-)

MattD: Until Harrison himself decides to shine some light on this, I don't know that your definition of "worldbuilding" should be ascribed to him.

Mike: Sorry to disappoint you, my friend. Flame-ups give the internet -- and especially blogs --a bad name. As I said, lashing out at Gabe would be counter-productive. And I do enjoy reading his blog, though I must say that his rants are a lot more fun to read when you're not at the root of them!!!;-) We don't see eye-to-eye on this issue, that's all. And Gabe's second post was much different in tone, even though he still doesn't care much for my assertion.

No, to maintain this "my dad is stronger than your dad" bickering would get us nowhere. For about two years the objective of this blog has been to raise awareness and spread the word about what's good in fantasy/scifi/speculative fiction. When people who rank rather high on the publishing world's totem tell you that your work is forcing them to re-evaluate the worth of weblogs, that tells me that I'm on to something. Others are also working hard to give blogs a "good" name, and I'm not going to fall prey to this pitfall. You can find flame-ups just about everywhere on the internet. I'm just not interested in this sort of thing.

Some of the emails I've been receiving ask me how I can let Gabe and others attack me like this. Well, I'm a Law Grad, with all that this implies. You learn rather quickly that your opinion is not worth much in Law School, which can be a humbling experience to some. I'm also a Right-winger living in an extremely Leftist social democrat province and in a socialist country. Having people not agree with me became a staple in my life quite early!;-)

Everyone is entitled to their opinion. I just haven't seen anyone stake a claim that validates M. John Harrison's arrogant stance pertaining to worldbuilding...

With that, I'm off to bed!

gabe chouinard said...

Everyone is entitled to their opinion. I just haven't seen anyone stake a claim that validates M. John Harrison's arrogant stance pertaining to worldbuilding...

But what's the arrogant part? That's what I'm wondering.

Anonymous said...

@Pat: "MattD: Until Harrison himself decides to shine some light on this, I don't know that your definition of "worldbuilding" should be ascribed to him."

I think his distinction between setting and worldbuilding is clear when you look at the Viriconium stories as a collection and what MJH has said about them: each story obviously has a setting, but he has stated that the collection as a whole is meant (in part) to disrupt the basic conceits of worldbuilding. See:

http://www.fantasticmetropolis.com/show.html?ey,viriconium,1 and
http://uzwi.wordpress.com/2007/01/18/licensed-settings/

In other words, I think he already has shed light on this, and my definitions were based on these readings.

@neth: "It seems to me that such a proclaimed and skilled wordsmith is perfectly capable of communicating exactly what he intends to without the need for a translator to help the rest of us figure things out.

It's the absolute postion and arrogant attitude that has people upset."

Ken, I think so many people were offended by the tone that they have not even tried to understand the original post (which is fine) and have posted all sorts of messages using their offense as an excuse to not try to understand it (which seems silly and is frankly rather annoying to anyone with an eye for aesthetics). To suggest that any position presented as an absolute should be rejected is itself an absolute position (and is thus circular reasoning and invalid). Further, I don't see how anyone who blogs can criticize another for being arrogant, as there is an inherent arrogance to blogging: the idea that your opinions should be shared with anonymous people beyond your circle of friends and family who have the context of knowing you (that arrogance of course is shared by those who respond to blog posts: I could just as easily have e-mailed this message). But rather than refusing to even discuss the matter in these ways, it would be much more interesting to talk about what MJH is suggesting.

Here, I'll start:

What MJH is saying is that the growth of worldbuilding (as opposed to mere setting -- see comments and links above), by providing more and more answers to readers and thus the illusions of comprehensiveness and plausibility, is diminishing readers' skill in grappling with what the author's agenda is, what they are trying to convey. (This whole discussion is a case in point.) Readers who get more answers handed to them are required to think of fewer meaningful questions on their own, and the central question becomes not "what is the author trying to convey?" but "is what the author writes realistic?" Put another way, constantly making it easier to understand "the other" by providing the context of extensive worldbuilding limits how great an "other" we can understand (limits it in fact to precisely the current society's definition of "realistic"). Understood that way, it's clear why he didn't try to elaborate more in his post and provide more answers: it would have been self-contradicting.

Why is this important? Well, MJH makes one suggestion in this regard at the end of his post: that the fictional worldbuilding of SF is akin to the fictional worldbuilding of politics, and that if our acquisition of critical thinking and questioning skills via reading diminishes, our ability to distinguish the agendas behind political and other narratives also diminishes.

Which, you know, would explain a lot....

MattD

Patrick said...

Gabe, it's quite evident that we are interpreting Harrison's post differently. To me, quotes like

"Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding."

"Worldbuilding is dull."

"Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unneccessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading)."

"Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done."

"Above all, worldbuilding is not technically neccessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism."

stink of elitism and I can't seem to interpret his words in any other way.

As you stated in your second post, and we all agree in that regard, is that worldbuilding is important. It's just that it mustn't become the cornerstone of any book/series/story.

As a reader I enjoy good worldbuilding and I admire authors who push the envelope in that regard. When I see that Erikson and Esslemont are working with a 300, 000 year-history, I find it mind-blowing.

On the other hand, when you read stuff by writers such as Ed Greenwood, who are excellent creators but pedestrian writers (and that's being politically correct), you can never get into it.

So yes, the writing is an important facet of the novel, no doubt about it. And yet, writing --taken by itself -- in my opinion cannot succeed in producing a rousing SFF book without equally good worldbuilding, characterization and storylines.

To me, they're all part of an unbreakable whole. Now, as readers we give various degrees of importance to distinct aspects of books. When I review a novel, I try to break it down into categories such as worldbuilding, characterization, pace, prose, plotlines, etc. Others don't value worldbuilding as I do, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Reading -- to me at least -- is a form of entertainment. I read SFF because I love those genres and because those books/series scratch my hitch. I simply can't abide people who deride the genre and claim that it's pure drivel. Yes, I do read SFF for excapism purposes, and it doesn't make me any less of a person. I also read about history, international politics, and so on and so forth.

In the end, as a fan of both fantasy and science fiction for over 20 years. M. John Harrison's post irked me. Many found it insulting as well, hence all these posts on a panoply of blogs, message boards, LJs, etc.

Gabe, I just think we both stand at different ends of the spectrum on this issue. None of us is right and none of us is wrong. We just disagree and will continue to do so till the Maple Leafs win another Stanley Cup!;-) Forever!

Of course, if Harrison comes out and clarifies everything, we'll know for certain what his words were meant to convey. But as I mentioned in a previous comment, I think that as an author his post is evident enough.

Anonymous said...

"Gabe, I just think we both stand at different ends of the spectrum on this issue. None of us is right and none of us is wrong. We just disagree and will continue to do so till the Maple Leafs win another Stanley Cup!;-) Forever!"

Christ, isn't there any hope at all!?!

Ed

Neth said...

-Matt

I think so many people were offended by the tone that they have not even tried to understand the original post (which is fine) and have posted all sorts of messages using their offense as an excuse to not try to understand it (which seems silly and is frankly rather annoying to anyone with an eye for aesthetics).

Yes, the tone is one of the biggest problems with MJH's post. The fact that it pisses so many people off and immediately puts them on the defensive shows just how inneffective it is for actually encouraging discussion on the issue. I find it ironic just how bad in terms of word choice - it really leads me to the conclusion that it was absolutely intentional and the a MJH is just an arrogant ass. Unfortunate that, since buried in all the various discussions is some good talk about what is good writing and worldbuilding's place in it.

To suggest that any position presented as an absolute should be rejected is itself an absolute position (and is thus circular reasoning and invalid). Further, I don't see how anyone who blogs can criticize another for being arrogant, as there is an inherent arrogance to blogging: the idea that your opinions should be shared with anonymous people beyond your circle of friends and family who have the context of knowing you (that arrogance of course is shared by those who respond to blog posts: I could just as easily have e-mailed this message).

I can't say that I agree with this. I think it's a real stretch to call my rejection of his absolute position circular - it is certainly beyond the spirit of my rejection of it. I understand that it often takes extreme or exaggerated stances to foster discussion, but there is no reason to be so damn elitist about it (now we're back to the tone again and just how ineffective his post was in terms of communicating anything beyond negative emotion).

I don't know that I would define blogging as a form of arrogance (at least in my case). There is certainly a bit of vanity in it, but for me, I would call it more a cathartic outlet of an aspect of personality that doesn't normally get expressed in the 'real world'. It allows me to connect more easily with similar people - in that respect it isn't all that different from going to a pub to hang out with a bunch of friends and watch and talk about football.


Now, as for the discussion that is actually about writing - I can't say that I disagree. I think that the view you have outlined here is a bit cynical and pessimistic, but unfortunately it's quite valid.

Though I still find it very strange that there is a need to interpret MJH's words like this in the first place - I can't help but come back to its complete failure in communication.

Patrick said...

Ed: Do you mean hope for the Leafs, or for Gabe and I!?!

I daresay that Gabe and I will change our tunes way before the Maple Leafs win another Cup!;-)

Misanthrope said...

After reading MJH's post and your reaction I was a little taken aback. While MJH seemed to be offering his opinion on what he feels is the best way to go about writing, you seem to have interpreted it as a condemnation of epic fantasy as a whole.

I think you (and some others posting comments here) are reading too much into what he's written and I kind of feel that by putting down MJH and issuing challenges you seem to be doing both him and yourself a disfavour. Then again, I think some of the attacks on you also seem overly vituperative.

Part of the problem, I believe, probably lies in the nature of blogs and making an argument from the comfort of one's home. Its all to easy to write in an overly strident and aggressive manner when blogging. Its easier (and more satisfying) to use harsh terms than to thoughtfully qualify ones remarks. I'm sure if you have a look at your post again you'll see what I mean. And looking at MJH's post, apart from the last line (which is a shallow attempt at humour) its not as arrogant as you might have first thought.

Anonymous said...

I'm confused... what's wrong with elitism?

JWood